The Camino de Santiago has a unique mystical aura surrounding it with pilgrims peacefully following the rhythm of their footsteps. The pilgrimage is linear in nature but combines several disparate routes all leading to Santiago. The Way to Santiago is now declared as a UNESCO Heritage site. The different Camino routes including, the French Way, the Portuguese Way, the English Way, the Northern Way and the Le Puy Route.
The story of the pilgrimage begins in the 9th Century when the remains of St James, one of the 12 Apostles, were discovered near Compostela in Northern Spain. King Alphonso II ordered the construction of a small church on the site of the discovery and news spread quickly among the community of believers and the Christian kingdoms of the Western World. This was the origin of the pilgrimages and the worship of St James.
The waves of pilgrims increased day by day. This current led to religious, cultural and economic ties that have woven a network around the pilgrimage’s deeply spiritual nature and the renowned cultural heritage it has brought to the area. The pilgrims began arriving in Santiago and The Way of St. James began to take shape. In the 12th and 13th Centuries if you walked the Camino and arrived in Santiago for July 25th your sins were forgiven. If St James’ Day falls on a Sunday (Xacobeo) the whole year is declared holy. This occurred in 1999, 2004 and 2010. The next holy year is 2021 with attendances in Santiago spiking each time.
I decided to walk the most popular route of the Camino from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. This is the last 115km of the French Way. The French Way got its name from the Codex Calixtinus which was the first ever guide book written by Aymeric Picaud in the 12th century. This book attracted most of the pilgrims traveling from Central and Eastern Europe.
After you leave the rich ornate heritage town of Sarria it’s a peaceful walk through shady oak woods, pretty villages and quiet country roads. You will follow the yellow arrows and scallop shells passing picturesque villages such as Barbadelo with its beautiful Romanesque church and Portomarin which had to be rebuilt in the Middle Ages after being submerged underwater. Every pilgrim passing will happily greet you with a “Buen Camino” (which literally translates as good path).
While walking on the Camino a pilgrim passport is essential and must be stamped at least twice a day during your walk. You can find stamps in churches, hotels / hostels and restaurant/cafes along the route. If a pilgrim has walked over 100km into Santiago they will receive a Compostela if they present their passport at the pilgrim office in Santiago.
Over the next few days, I walked approximately 20kms a day manoeuvring through forests, steep hills, and large plains. We also passed numerous Romanesque Churches and small Spanish villages. It is highly recommended to take breaks along the route and experience some of the local delicacies such as “Pimientos de Padron” (small green peppers fried in oil) and Pulpo (Galician octopus).
You will feel a tremendous sense of achievement on reaching the Cathedral in Santiago. The construction of cathedral began in the 11th century. The interior is Romanesque in style, while the exterior ornamental façade is Baroque. In centre of the cathedral is a gold statue of St James and underneath it is an underground walkway to the tomb where there is a lot of letters. There is so much more in the Cathedral that it is simply a must see. Pilgrims attend the Pilgrim mass to see the Botafumeiro (famous swinging of the thurible).
There are numerous squares and plazas throughout the city. The most important of these are located around Santiago Cathedral. The Plaza del Obradoiro is the gathering place for pilgrims during the feast day of St. James. The name of this square is said to come from “Obra de Oro” (work of gold) and it forms the centre of the town. Nearby there is the pilgrim office where the Compostela can be obtain as long it meet the criteria, there is usually a long queue which would take an hour but it is recommended to go very early in the morning to avoid queues.
Follow the Camino (www.followthecamino.com) offers walking and cycling packages on the Camino. They are offering 5% off trips booked for early bookings.
The Spanish are very proud of their national identity and language particularly in rural areas and it’s considered rude to expect Spanish to speak English especially when English is not widely spoken. It is recommended to learn basic Spanish along the Camino especially on the quieter sections.
Is the Camino a challenge?
The Camino is a challenge for anyone young or old alike. You could be walking from 4 to 7 hours per day. The key is to be prepared and manage the challenge. Whether walking for 5 days (the last 110km) or 5 weeks (The Full French Way) the Camino has an impact on your mind and body. You need the right equipment for the walk such as proper footwear and backpack is extremely important. You could arrange a luggage transfer while you walk It is important to go your own pace as there is no point in rushing as you may miss the reason you are there for.
Meeting fellow pilgrims
The regular periodic encounters with strangers quickly become meetings with friends. These are long enough so that you pay attention to the people next to you, but never too long that make you feel uncomfortable to leave them and maybe see them later, or another day, at another place. I usually spent 20-30 minutes with people before stopping or speeding up, learning always a bit more about them such as their personal situation, talents and why they are walking. After a couple of days, I got to know a group of Spaniards that started their beer break at 10am, two French ladies who had walked from Dax in France and many more. Adventures continue throughout this challenging spiritual journey. For more information. http://www.followthecamino.com